Flight 370 lost in social maze
I flew into Penang, Malaysia, almost exactly a week after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished. Although I’m a reporter by training, I was not there to write about the missing plane. In fact I was on the first leg of a lecture tour of Asia. My brief was to talk about branding in the digital era to assorted groups of students and marketers.
Still, I got sucked into the story anyway. My taxi driver was full of opinions, which ranged from government cover-ups to holes in the fabric of time and space, Lost style. The first thing I saw in the lobby of the G Hotel was an enormous board marked with the words “Hopes and prayers for MH370″. It was black with messages of condolence. Today we know that, tragically, the aircraft probably crashed into the sea. But back then the speculation in the Malaysian press was almost as wild as that of my driver. As jet-lag kicked in, I began to feel lost myself.
It was only the following morning, when I was addressing the students of the One Academy – an art and design college – that I began to feel more at ease. We spoke a lot about the role of Twitter in the news cycle. Because they’re wary of censorship in the mainstream press, many students told me that they turn to Twitter for “the real story”. But confronted with a major story on their own doorstep, they ran up against the limitations of citizen journalism. Twitter is a mesh of repeated (or retweeted) material, much of it from unofficial sources.
In that situation, who do you trust? My answer is – you trust people. You trust journalists you’ve been reading for years whose work has proved consistently accurate. In that respect, journalists are like brands. You stick with the ones that don’t let you down. I scan news from all over the place – but I have unshakeable faith in the reporting of The New York Times.
My tour of Asia also took in Shanghai and Seoul. In each destination, I found delegates who had grown up with technology – but were increasingly aware of its limitations. In Shanghai, a young woman working in PR for an investment bank told me she had trouble attracting the attention of journalists with her press releases. They received so many mails, they had so many demands on their time. “What should I put in the heading of my email?” she asked.
I told her: “Why don’t you send it on paper? In an envelope?”
She looked at me incredulously. “On paper?”
“Sure,” I said. “I can’t remember the last time I received a press release in the post. These days, if I receive an envelope, I’m always curious enough to open it. That way, you’ll stand out from the crowd.”
She clearly thought I was teasing her. And maybe I was, a little. But the idea has some merit, I think. Words on paper as a form of guerrilla marketing. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “pushing the envelope.”